Family medicine

Husband and wife are two of Oroville Hospital’s newest doctors

Dr. Michael Johnston and Dr. Elizabeth Johnston of Oroville Hospital met in college, got married, and have progressed in their medical careers side-by-side.

Dr. Michael Johnston and Dr. Elizabeth Johnston of Oroville Hospital met in college, got married, and have progressed in their medical careers side-by-side.

Photo By Matt Siracusa

See the doctors:
Dr. Michael Johnston’s office is at the Oroville Hospital Cardiology Practice, 2721 Olive Highway, Ste. 2B; phone 532-8609.

Dr. Elizabeth Johnston’s office is at Surgical Specialists, 2809 Olive Highway, Ste. 220; phone 532-8161.

If not for a couple twists of fate, Oroville Hospital would not have found itself with two of the newest members on its medical staff.

Dr. Michael Johnston, a cardiologist, and Dr. Elizabeth Johnston, a surgeon, met as undergraduates in college. They got married in 2002 and managed to stay together for each step of medical training, even though they weren’t in the same year of school and chose separate specialties.

At several steps along the way, providence shaped their joint destiny.

First, they nearly never met, because Mike was close to choosing another school and another career.

Then, six months after they started dating, Beth went on an eight-month medical mission to Nigeria; there, she worked with Dr. Randell Skau, a mentor who inspired her to become a surgeon and just so happens to practice at Oroville Hospital.

Coincidence? Divine intervention? Whatever the case, this collection of circumstances led the Johnstons and their two children—Joshua, 3, and Rachel, 9 months—to relocate from Nebraska this summer. It was a homecoming of sorts, since Elizabeth Johnston–or Beth–spent much of her childhood in Northern California, and the Johnstons, both 34, attended Pacific Union College in Angwin, in the Napa Valley.

“We missed Northern California a lot,” Beth said in a recent joint phone interview with her husband. “I grew up running the hills [of the East Bay and Napa Valley], and enjoyed the nature part of life. I missed the weather—six months of winter wasn’t my thing.”

Michael Johnston–or Mike–said that, growing up, his family “always had horses and chickens and goats, [and] a garden. Never was an inner-city person.

“So we were looking for a place with a rural lifestyle, [a] small-town feel,” he said, “but also close enough to the city so we could easily get to an airport. We love to travel. So, Oroville is perfect for that.”

Beth went to grade school in Concord, then moved with her family to Hong Kong for three years. After a year in Los Angeles, she headed north to Healdsburg, which is where she graduated from high school.

Mike, meanwhile, was a Texas boy who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. He knew he wanted to go to school on the West Coast, and he narrowed his choices to California (where he’d prepare for a career in medicine) and Washington (where he’d study engineering). A friend who worked in the marketing department of Pacific Union sealed the deal when he let Mike know he’d get to leave Texas a week earlier by attending Pacific Union; he enrolled in 1998.

“It’s kind of funny to think about now: that if the other school [in Washington] had started earlier, I’d probably have gone into engineering,” Mike said with a chuckle. “It would have been a whole different story.”

He first crossed paths with Beth at Pacific Union’s orientation; she was a student docent for the biology department. Mike became friends with Beth’s sister, who later reintroduced him to Beth. Soon they became a couple.

When Beth left for her extended trip to Nigeria, she and Mike had to adapt to time apart, as well as limited communication. Beth had access to the Internet only once a week, so she and Mike got in the habit of writing multiple emails, storing them and sending them in batches.

After their eight-month separation, Beth said, “we were very happy to see each other again.”

Beth graduated from Pacific Union a year before Mike and went to medical school at Loma Linda University in Southern California. (Loma Linda is a Seventh-day Adventist school, as is Pacific Union College; both Mike and Beth are Adventists.) They got married one week after Mike’s undergraduate commencement. He’d applied to only one medical school—Loma Linda—and, as fate would have it, got accepted.

When it came to their supplemental training, the Johnstons applied to programs as a couple, which can be more complicated than applying for residencies and fellowships as individuals. They interviewed with 23 institutions before finding the University of Nebraska Medical Center to be the best fit. After finishing her surgical fellowship, Beth worked for the Veterans Health Administration in Omaha for a year until Mike finished his cardiology fellowship.

Some physicians in residency and fellowship training enjoy having a partner or spouse who isn’t a doctor—someone who isn’t so immersed in the same field. But the Johnstons found they enjoy sharing areas of interest that are related yet distinct.

“We have friends whose spouses are not doctors,” Mike said, “and they really struggled to understand the hours and the work ethic. …

“But our fields are different enough that after about the first year our specialties diverged … so even though we’re both physicians, we speak a different language at home. It is interesting to hear each other’s different points of view, from an internal medicine and cardiology point of view and a general surgeon point of view. It’s good to bounce ideas off of each other.

“At this point, most of our home life is with the kids, so we very rarely bring work home now.”

Beth works in the operating rooms at Oroville Hospital. She specializes in breast surgery but, as a general surgeon, handles a wide range of operations. Mike sees patients in an Oroville office, but because Oroville Hospital does not have a cardiac-catheterization lab, he travels to Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville to perform certain procedures, he said.

Each entered an established clinical practice, and they’re finding a pent-up demand for their services.

“It definitely was a draw for the hospital that they already had the structure for the clinic; you just walk in and everything’s set up from day one, and the community support is already there for you,” Mike said. “They all have been very welcoming to us and laid out the red carpet, so to speak.”